[DWJ] Space squids and other monsters

Minnow minnow at belfry.org.uk
Thu Apr 23 19:18:37 EDT 2009

(Eeek!  This bounced and just got back to me.  Try again.)

>On Tue, Apr 21, 2009 at 05:26:32PM +0100, Minnow wrote:
>>But all of this doesn't really excuse someone in the 1980s and 1990s
>>apparently feeling able to claim that SF = space-travelling squids,
>>ignoring everything after the pulp covers of the 1930s and 1940s (or indeed
>>of the 1880s and 1890s).  That seems to me to be purely absurd.

and Roger replied:

>I think it's more a reinforcement of the idea that all SF is bad, so if
>something is (to be thought of as) good it cannot be (thought of as) SF.

I once  sat in a carpark at a convention playing some songs on the car's
stereo to a folk-singer who despised filk.  She listened to them and
enjoyed them.

"I like them," she told me. "What are they?

I showed her the cover of the tape: a tape of filk songs, sung by filkers
at a filk con, and produced by a filk label.

"They can't be filk," she told me firmly. "I don't like filk."

>As for example this from J. G. Ballard's obituary in the NYTimes:
>"His fabulistic style led people to review his work as science fiction,"
>said Robert Weil, Mr. Ballard's American editor at Norton. "But that's
>like calling 'Brave New World' science fiction, or '1984.'"

I have this funny feeling that at least some of Ballard's books are
generally regarded as such, in the same way as some of those by Jules
Verne.  Some on the other hand are clearly not SF at all: *Empire of the
Sun* isn't.  Towards the end of his life, when he had moved away from SF,
some of the SF critics went on reviewing his work but slightly sadly, along
the lines "it's good stuff but it isn't really SF".  (And at the same time
the mainstream critics were writing "despite an unfortunate use of some
science fictional elements this book is good stuff".)  And what are we to
make of Kurt Vonnegut jr?  Did he write SF, or not?  He tended to say
"not", but I would suggest that was a bit ingenuous when he was talking
about *The Sirans of Tiatan* or *Cat's Cradle*.

The water is muddied by some SF pundits claiming as SF such things as the
Epic of Gilgamesh or the Bible, on the grounds that their depiction of the
planet is not "true" and is therefore an attempt at a science we know to be
fictional.  Or something.  I think anything about alchemy is also claimed,
and anything set in a future, and anything set in an imaginary world.  This
is fairly dim, I feel.

Also of course some people *have* messed things around mightily by writing
some SF and some clearly non-SF: Naomi Mitchison, for instance, wrote at
least a hundred books which include both *The Corn King and the Spring
Queen* and *Behold Your King*, neither of which is SF in the least, as well
as *Memoirs of a Space Woman*, which most definitely *is*.  Kipling wrote
enough SF for John Brunner to collect it into a book.  John Buchan wrote at
least two books that could be called SF rather than horror or fantasy.  And
so on and so forth: if SF tropes provide the best way to tell the story
that an author wants to tell, why not use SF tropes to do it?

It's so lucky that people can dismiss DWJ's work as "for children", and not
have to argue about whether eg *A Tale of Time City* is SF, Fantasy or
What, really.  Though of course they do: there has been a longish ongoing
argument over *A Sudden Wild Magic*, because the bus is obviously a
spaceship.  When asked once "Is *A Sudden Wild Magic* science fiction or
fantasy?", DWJ replied simply "Yes" -- which seems to me to be the best
answer to the whole vexed question.  :-)

Just think what we might all have missed if we had assumed we were "too
grown-up" to read "children's literature"...  Actually, it doesn't bear
thinking about.  Poor Margaret Atwood, too serious-lit'ry to read that
rubbishy SF stuff.  She must have missed out on so much.  Still, maybe she
has been able to enjoy Ballard (if such a thing is possible, such doom and
gloom mostly) or Wyndham (ditto, on the whole) by persuading herself that
it isn't SF really because it doesn't have any space-travelling squids in

Hey, maybe that's why she has stuck to that ridiculous definition?  It lets
her read all the SF without squids while feeling safely that she isn't
reading SF at all!


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